Could the end be near for the Tamil Tigers? A military offensive by the Sri Lankan government has made historic gains against the rebel force and appears set to conclude the bloody civil war that has lasted a quarter of a century and devastated the country. This vicious insurgency has claimed far too many lives, but a military victory, no matter how crushing, will not end the violence. A political settlement is the only solution to an enduring peace in Sri Lanka.
For over 25 years, Tamil rebels have fought the Sinhalese majority, charging that the government in Colombo discriminates against the Tamils who make up 12 percent of the island’s population of 20 million. The Tamils have demanded a homeland in the northeast of the island; their sophisticated and vicious attacks have kept the government on the defensive and permitted the Tamil Tigers to carve out an enclave that they used as a sanctuary. Over the course of the conflict, it is estimated that 70,000 people have been killed and the island is today better known for the savage fighting than its tropical splendor.
Tamil successes owe a great deal to the ruthlessness of their leader, Mr. Velupillai Prabhakaran. With financial support from the Tamil diaspora, he transformed the Tamil Tigers into a fearsome, disciplined militia with its own air force and navy. Suicide attacks that deployed women wearing explosive wreaths — victims of which include Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi — were especially horrific and successful.
To its credit, the government in Colombo did not share that appetite for mayhem and destruction. Its policies vacillated between waging war and suing for peace. The result was a war that dragged on, yielding a bloody stalemate and claiming thousands of lives.
The situation changed, however, with the election of Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa as president of Sri Lanka in 2005. Mr. Rajapaksa, a conservative, ended the six-year ceasefire with the rebels, ignored the subsequent international outcry and committed his government to all-out victory. The country’s defense budget reached a record $1.6 billion and military recruitment jumped 40 percent. Some charge that the government has adopted the same tactics as the rebels — a disregard for casualties, especially among civilians — but its strict control over the media has allowed it to maintain public support and minimize international criticism.
In recent weeks, the government has had a string of successes, overrunning rebel territory and seizing much of its sanctuary in the northeast of the island. The group lost its political headquarters at Kilinochchi earlier this month and the army has seized the main highway in the northern Jaffna Peninsula. On Wednesday, it took full control of the area for the first time in 23 years. The insurgents have been driven into the jungle and the Sri Lankan military now can bring the full weight of its strength to bear on a small area.
It is too early to count the rebels out. Estimates of the number of Tamil soldiers range from 2,000 to 10,000, with perhaps another 10,000 reservists. If the army defeats the rebels, most observers expect hard-core supporters to take off their uniforms and fight as guerrillas.
More significant, however, is the fact that the Tamil insurgency, bloody and misguided though it may have become, is rooted in real grievances. The Tamil population of Sri Lanka has been discriminated against and many Sinhalese politicians make no apologies for that. Mr. Rajapaksa has said that he would seek a political resolution to the problem once the Tamil Tigers are defeated, but other nationalist leaders see no reason to embrace power sharing, which is the only enduring solution to Sri Lanka’s problems. If institutionalized inequality continues, then another outbreak of violence is inevitable.
A telling indicator will be the treatment of Tamil refugees. Hundreds of thousands of Tamils have been uprooted by the fighting. Many have been forced to fight by the Tigers. Others fear that the government will view them as sympathizers, which could provide yet another rationalization for unequal treatment.
Mr. Rajapaksa should take the long view. The end of this conflict will open the door to substantial aid and assistance to help repair the battered Sri Lankan economy. There will be ample funds for the entire country. Rather than seek to punish the Tamils, he should try to win them over. A genuinely inclusive government in Colombo can garner the support of the Tamil population. Freed from the fear of retribution by Tamil hardliners, moderates will be able to respond to the government’s blandishments.
It will take years, if not generations, to heal the scars created by a two decades of fighting. But the victories of the last few weeks make possible a genuine peace in Sri Lanka. Other nations need to be prepared to help — Japan among them. But the first test is a real commitment to reconciliation, peace and prosperity for all Sri Lankans.
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